A storehouse of memories :: Paintings of life in pre-Holocaust Poland at the Magnes Museum

  • by David Foucher, EDGE Publisher
  • Thursday September 27, 2007
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Forty years ago, anthropologist and Yiddish folklorist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett found an intriguing project close to home. She began a series of conversations with her aging, Polish immigrant father, Mayer Kirshenblatt, a project which evolved into a full-blown oral history about the lost Polish town of his youth, accompanied by a series of paintings and drawings. Now 91 and living in Toronto, Mayer has produced 270 paintings since 1990; he taught himself to paint at age 73. He used his newfound skill to depict his boyhood in Apt, a town of 10,000 which, in the 1940s, saw its once-thriving Jewish population of 6,500 reduced, with the help of pogroms and Nazi extermination, to a scant 300. On October 20, 1942, the Jews were deported. Today, there is no trace of them.

Mayer's collaboration with his daughter, their conversations, and 65 of his paintings chronicling the life of his town have come to fruition in They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of Jewish Life in Poland Before the Holocaust, an exhibition that's part memoir, part oral history, part visual art. It's also a vivid record of Jewish daily rituals in Poland before WWII, filtered through the eyes of a young boy and tempered by the distance of memory. (Mayer got his nickname, July, because he was considered an excitable kid, and July was a hot month.) The show is on view at the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, through January 13, 2008.

His mission, says Mayer, is to remember his childhood in color, "lest future generations know more about how Jews died than how they lived." The show is indeed a song of life, but the ominous fate that awaited Apt's Jews looms in the wings. It's referred to rather graphically in only one section, titled "Destroying." The chilling "Slaughter of the Innocents 1: Execution of My Father's Family at Szydlowiec, 1942, Inspired by Goya's Disasters of War (1997)" pictures shuddering men and women, arms over their heads, lined up in a field to be executed by men with Nazi armbands. In the background, a bank of storm clouds hovers above an unearthly pink horizon as darkness descends. "Execution of My Grandmother on the Road to Sandomierz, 1942 (1997)" depicts the murder of Mayer's grandmother, a grey figure huddled on the ground, a bleeding bullet wound in her head. Close by, a group of Jews, presumably rounded up, cluster on a country road.

Slice of life

The paintings, which are organized around themes such as praying, parading, trading, and creating, form a visual narrative of everyday activities, a slice of forgotten history. Each picture tells a story, narrated by Mayer and his daughter in a companion audio recording; his recollections and her observations animate and inform the paintings. (The audio tour can be accessed through a cell phone: (510) 550-7597.) As stand-alone works of art, they're flat; however, several notable exceptions hint at a still-developing, promising talent. For instance, "Self-Portrait with Mother and Three Brothers (1999)," which resembles a charcoal sketch, is finely drawn, sensitively rendered and moving. In "Circus (2005)," an especially festive painting, brightly colored figures are assembled in the audience under a "big-top" tent lit from inside with a golden light and joy that recalls the playful, childlike imagery of Chagall. "Exit Hamburg" evokes a grimmer period shortly before Mayer and his family immigrated to Canada. Against a stark white background, a boy in a blue outfit, Mayer himself, stands at a ticket counter overseen by a heavy-set woman bearing a Nazi insignia. Behind her hangs a large poster of Hitler, his features cast in black paint on white background.

In "Leaving," a poignant section that evokes the insidious effects of anti-Semitism, Mayer recalls, "There was a lot of unemployment at the time, and Jews were discriminated against. I always considered myself a Pole, but the Polish government considered me a Jew, a Zyd, which sounds horrible. I just could not see any future in Poland. So we settled in Toronto. It was a cold and stormy crossing." That ocean voyage is portrayed in "Ice Fields: Arriving in Canadian Waters, February 1934 (2005)." In this odd, disconcerting work, Mayer juxtaposes an ice-breaker vessel plowing through snow-packed seas with travelers gathered on a sunny deck, drinking at an outdoor, fully stocked bar like passengers vacationing on a cruise ship. Leaving his country of origin for the unknown was surely no holiday, but perhaps it's the way the child in Mayer remembers it. "I consider myself a storehouse of memories," he says. "The places I remember exist no more. They are only in my head, and if I die, they will disappear with me. I paint these scenes as I remember them, as a little boy looking through the window."

They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of Jewish Life in Poland Before the Holocaust at the Judah L. Magnes Museum

@ The Judah L. Magnes Museum

2911 Russell St., Berkeley

Hours: Sun.-Wed., 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; Thurs., 11 a.m.-8 p.m.

Information: www.magnes.org or (510) 549-6950

David Foucher is the CEO of the EDGE Media Network and Pride Labs LLC, is a member of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalist Association, and is accredited with the Online Society of Film Critics. David lives with his daughter in Dedham MA.